Healthcare News & Insights

It’s not a food allergy — but good luck convincing ’em

New research confirms: Most people who are convinced they have food allergies, don’t. Doctors who want to educate patients on what’s really going on are facing an uphill battle.

According to a new report in the Journal of American Medicine, although roughly 30% of the Americans think they have food allergies, in fact only about 8% of kids and 5% of adults do.

Patients, and even some doctors, are confused by misleading tests and poorly-designed scientific studies as well as a culture that encourages patients to see every reaction as a disease.

As part of the report, researchers reviewed more than 12,000 medical papers on food allergies that were published between January 1988 and September 2000. Only 72 met the researchers’ criteria, which included rating the rigorousness of the tests and using sufficient sample sizes.

Researchers also found that the most common allergen tests, using skin pricks or looking for IgE blood antibodies, were grossly inaccurate in identifying patients with food allergies. In fact, patients diagnosed via those tests had less than a 50% chance of having a food allergy, according to the researchers.

In most cases, the “allergy” is actually an intolerance to something in the food (such as sulfites in wine) or a misdiagnosis of another ailment, such as GERD.

What to do about the misinformation? Researchers offered some options, including using food challenges — where the suspected allergen is given to patients disguised as something else, to see if they have a reaction.

More help is on the way this summer. The report was part of a larger effort by the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases to standardize food allergy testing efforts. By the end of June, NIAID expects to have a final draft of guidelines for defining what is a food allergy as well as how to diagnose and manage patients.

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